By Jocelyn Lena Twight
There is a type of energy held within a mirror that draws you into it. You can be surprised by the reflections, even though they are simply a projection. You can be mesmerized. I have only one mirror and I am routinely teased for not looking at it before I walk out the door. I try not to let my view of myself be influenced by what others might see. I realize that what I see reflected rarely matches what I think is there.
As a child, I was carefree. I never thought about what I looked like. That is the beauty of childhood. As a child your carefree mind does not take into account that you might be judged by where you live, or what you wear, or what you look like, and that is a part of the beauty of childlike innocence. I try to hold onto that into adulthood. I often fail.
I ran around in my tomboy ways playing in dirt, wearing cowboy boots, permanently living in an Oscar the grouch hoodie and quite happy with myself. As I grew up, my tastes varied. I could often be found dancing on the coffee table to old Elvis movies or trying to impersonate musicals: Singing in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story… This was after playing with frogs, snakes, salamanders and rodents.
I was in 4-H. I would not have been found in a dress. I was a very small and scrawny child. I have a vague recollection of talking to a nurse about my welfare because someone had been concerned about my weight. I don’t know how that call was initiated or exactly how it was resolved, but I do remember someone I believe was a doctor finally saying, “I think she’s just a small kid who never stops.”
I never sat still; I never wanted to slow down. I was on the go and a night owl, never wanting to stop to sleep. Sometime before sixth grade I became very aware of my body. It happened in a way a child should never experience. But once your eyes are open there’s no turning back.
I suddenly knew I was too skinny. I endured teasing through to adulthood. I was the president of the itty-bitty-titty committee. I likely had nipples on my back because I had such small breasts they must have inverted. The comments about my lack of backside don’t even deserve repeating. These were things said in a junior high mentality that, for some reason, my brain had decided to file away as important for the rest of my days. If I had a say in the matter I would’ve liked to replace those files with fluent French or maybe Chinese. Instead, they resulted in the inability to actually see myself when I looked in the mirror.
In my mid-twenties I found myself in a battle with my weight. It was unknown to me then that I was beginning my struggle with Colitis. I went through a phase where my body would not keep down any food.
I went to the doctor, concerned, and he patted me on the shoulder and sent me home with medicine for a chronic cough. I could still not keep food down, and then I could not keep water down, so I went back. After a few tests I was dismissively sent on my way. Once vomiting on a regular basis was my life, I went back a third time. I could no longer fit into adult clothes. My Mother sobbed when she saw me — despite my prior warnings.
My doctor looked at me as if he had never seen me before and labeled me anorexic. I attempted to remind him that I had been coming to him for months — concerned with my inability to keep food down — before I had lost all the weight. This old physician with bifocals and a semi-circle of grey hair around his bald spot condescendingly tried to convince me that I required psychiatric inpatient treatment that day. Exasperated and exhausted from not being able to eat anything, I was what we now call “hangry.” I told him I would not listen to him for one more minute and agreed to an immediate independent psychiatric consult. I was moved relatively quickly to the basement to outpatient psychiatrics to wait to speak with a counselor.
Once with him, I advocated for myself like I never had before. I started with the medical history of my repeated visits and the old doctor’s unwillingness to listen to my concerns before the weight-loss had become drastic. I further explained that I thought his medical degree was in question based on what had to be a lack of continuing education. I told them about a previous misdiagnosis of a brain tumor when it was one of my known migraines. I further went on to explain my complicated childhood history and the years of counseling I spent in my school days because of my weight. I told the psychiatrist point blank what my flaws are, and then listed my strengths. I explained that I could not easily go see another doctor because it would not be covered by my insurance unless the old doctor referred me. I flat out begged this counselor to refer me to the specialist who this doctor would not let me see. I never cried and I never raised my voice.
My wish was granted. By the end of the month I had a second visit with the psychiatrist who was all smiles. I was applauded for being well adjusted. I was congratulated on knowing my own body and advocating for it until I received my diagnosis; my stomach did not work correctly. The slightest gravity caused my food to come back up through the top of my stomach where a muscle is missing. I learned not to drink a glass of water and bend over to pick up a pen off the floor; never to eat before bed, never to lie flat on my back with anything in my stomach.
The counselor also told me that the old doctor had been given a few options, none of which he greatly liked, but he chose to retire, and would no longer practice medicine. That counselor happily referred me to a new primary care physician. My health self-advocacy had paid off.
Now I began my real struggle. Once you drop below a life sustaining weight, your body doesn’t bounce back easily. It’s painful. Your hair falls out. Your stomach shrinks. You have intense muscle cramps. You are a ticking digestive time bomb. My body became convinced it needed to hoard every calorie I consumed in case of another famine. Let’s not discuss the horrors of skin tone. My weight very quickly sky rocketed from size 0 to size 14+. I could no longer recognize myself in a mirror– yet again.
That was 20 years ago. The struggle since is one I believe will be life-long. My weight these days is pretty steady, but I am ever vigilant. It has jumped back and forth over the years, and I have since added a multitude of food allergies and Colitis to my digestive medical history. Every illness along the way is matched with weight loss or gain.
I have felt firsthand how invisible you are when you are overweight. People don’t look you in the eye. They often speak to you with irrational ire. Men respond differently and so do women when they think you have simply “allowed” yourself to get overweight.
I have felt firsthand the way you are judged when people think you weigh too little. Rudely being asked to leave Victoria’s Secret because they have no sizes for you, even after you politely ask for help. (No grown woman wants to shop for bras in the Target pre-teen department.) I felt uncomfortable attention from men who liked that I looked like an adolescent, but I was surprised to feel ostracized by the plus size group in which I had recently belonged. I was not taken seriously by anyone.
I learned that our society is incredibly judgmental; men and women, skinny and fat, adolescent and older. The only group that seems to get it right is children. They only judge once we adults skew their perceptions with our own distortions, learned through years of negative experience.
Today I work in the medical field. Every now and again, when I hear a passing comment made by a patient about a weight concern, I will give her the briefest explanation of how I have been there and understand that the struggle is real. I tell her how long my weight has been stable, and to never give up on her goals. I try to help others learn to advocate for their health. I try not to judge, and I try to understand when others are having a hard time living in a body that is betraying them. I also try to remember that how others see me is not my true self. They only see the shell of me, and my spirit is so much more than my body reveals. I don’t look in the mirror a lot. Any reflection is an altered version. I don’t own a scale. Any body will fluctuate in weight, and I try to focus on how I feel in my own skin on that day.
I eat to feel good. I eat to have energy to live a healthy life. I try to have a healthy relationship with my food. I exercise daily — out in the world to connect with my surroundings. I try to go to bed grateful. I try to wake up with a fresh start — being a better human than I was the night before.
I do all of this, but still …
It happened one day that I was checking on a patient who was wearing workout garb, and absently thought, “Damn girl, you look good! Way to get at it!” I took her vitals as always, and as I shut the door to the room and walked away, it hit me. We are a similar height and I weighed less than she did. I was once again reminded that I still see myself as others see me to be: big, small, big, small; I have not finished evolving. I still need to work on my self-esteem. I still have to shake off others’ perceptions of me. I still need to learn to love that woman in the mirror, however she looks back at me.
Jocelyn as had many life-changing experiences that she embraces openly and with love. She has an extensive base of knowledge rooted in all things living, an innate desire to nurture, and an explosive laugh that moves her whole head.